Inside Gregory Gym

It’s the 1970s, and she sits at a registration table helping administrators guide students through the registration process. Inside Gregory Gym, she flips through to find index cards that have students’ names on them. “I was holding up to three part-time jobs at the University as a research assistant, working during registration and in the offices there,” said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. “All campus jobs.” Zaffirini, who was an undergraduate student at UT more than 40 years ago, is now a Texas state senator. Fresh into college, Zaffirini had just gotten married at 18 and said the couple was self-supported, unlike most classmates who got financial aid. “For us it was very challenging, but I can remember being incredibly happy because [my husband and I] were married and deeply in love,” she said. “When we first got married we used to drink five cent Coca-Cola on Sunday as our Sunday treat.” Zaffirini received her undergraduate degree in 1967, and completed her master’s and doctoral degrees at UT, as well. The courses that empowered her most were during graduate school, she said. “I learned that research, learning and teaching are inseparably intertwined,” Zaffirini said. “There are certain skills you learn in grad school that build on what you learn as an undergrad.” While working on her graduate dissertation — a description of Mexican-American mass media habits ­— she worked with a fellow student to help her understand the statistics involved in her research. “Judy from time to time took the same study breaks at the Student Union where I would study and we’d sit down and talk,” said Bill Gruber, who is now Ph.D. program director at Texas A&M International University. “She was certainly a very aggressive student, to say the least. In my recollections, she had always been focused on school.” Zaffirini would later set up Gruber with her husband’s cousin on a blind date. They eventually got married. “Now he’s in Laredo administering the Ph.D. program that I created through legislation,” she said. “The circle closes.” If it hadn’t been for that legislation, Gruber said he would not be able to be at Texas A&M International University. “She was instrumental in giving this institution a Ph.D. program in international business,” he said. “That, indeed, is why I’m here.” Zaffirini said her passion for the Legislature grew out of a desire to get a four-year university in Laredo, so she decided to run for the Texas Senate in 1986. “Higher education has always been my passion,” Zaffirini said. “I was always politically active. In 1972, my husband and I [started attending] conventions for the Democratic party.” Now, Zaffirini, as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said she is concerned more cuts to UT’s state funding may cause another tuition increase. “This session, the number one issue is funding,” she said. “Usually my priorities include increasing funding­ — this time we are trying to maintain funding.” Zaffirini said the $27 billion shortfall in the state’s budget has made funding this session a “very serious challenge” across the board but especially in higher education. “We cannot risk excellence,” she said. “If [higher education] is tarnished because of inadequate funding then there will not be such a demand for it.” Another priority she has this session is to include students in the legislative process and to ensure their voices are heard in the budget cutting process. “As higher education chair we always include students on the agendas,” she said. “We invite students to testify and we contact students personally. We reach out to students.”